3:10 to Yuma: The Most Spectacular Clunker in the History of the Western

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Sophia Loren once said of her face that all the individual components are wrong, but they fit together well. In contrast, the individual parts of 3:10 to Yuma are simply magnificent, but the overall effect is Zasu Pitts.

The cinematography is flawless. The acting is equally flawless. The interaction between Russell Crowe and Christian Bale is reminiscent of the interaction between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the diner scene in Heat, or between Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham in the deathbed scene in Amadeus. But the two of them sustain the repartee through the entire movie.

The dialog is clever and crisp. The writers neglected only one thing: plausibility. Every scene stands on its own merits, and each is arguably more implausible than the last. In this sense, 3:10 to Yuma may become a screenwriter’s classic, moving from scene to scene like an accelerating tidal wave of implausibility. The ending is without a doubt the most implausible I ever recall in any film, ever, western or not — a veritable crescendo of “What was that all about?”

The credits of 3:10 to Yuma should have closed with a dedication to the memory of the writer-director who was clearly the spiritual godfather of this movie: Ed Wood.

This is a large-screen movie, as most Technicolor westerns are. Don’t wait for this to be released on DVD. Let them have their $8.50. You have to see this thing in its wide-screen magnificence in order to appreciate the grandeur of its utter implausibility.

I am now going to review the entire plot and highlight the memorable scenes in this incomparable monstrosity. My review will not ruin the movie for you. The movie will do that on its own, with no help from me. My review will merely help you to savor 3:10 to Yuma as you see it. When you start giggling uncontrollably in the theater, you will demonstrate your firm grasp of what this film’s triumph really is. Scene by disjointed scene, you will appreciate what is likely to become a legend among script writers.

The movie begins at night in a ranch house. The owner hears noises outside. He gets up. Then he falls down. This is explained later: he has a wooden leg, as the movie never lets us forget. He lost his leg in the Civil War. This wooden leg has little to do with the plot line, or the film’s outcome, or anything else, with one exception: as you hear him clunk across the room and then see him fall flat, this becomes a metaphor for the entire film. The director is a master of subtlety.

Outside, people are setting fire to his barn. One barn-burner shouts that they will be back the next week to burn down his house. Bale knows who the barn-burner is. There is a witness: his teenage son. So, will he go to the sheriff? Of course not.

The man who ordered the burning is the man he owes the mortgage to. He is a little behind in his payments. This high-risk, low-output, peg-leg rancher is apparently a metaphor for today’s subprime mortgage market. What timing! The director is also a marketing genius.

The mortgage-holder has somehow cut off the flowing water to the little ranch. We are not told how. Diverting water flow through your property without reasonable use was illegal under riparian rights law in the old West, but let’s ignore this. The ranch will be his in a week. The director missed a trick by not giving the guy a handlebar moustache. As I say, he is quite subtle.

What do you suppose the villain plans to do with this unproductive ranch? If you are a western movie buff, you know. Sell it to the railroad! All right! Good start for a low-budget B-western, which this plot line reveals so far, except for one thing: there was no reason to have his men burn down the barn, which would have landed them all in jail. He had not yet legally foreclosed.

This villain then disappears from the film. This actor was one of the lucky ones.

Meanwhile, completely independently, Russell Crowe is planning a robbery of the railroad’s pay wagon. OK! Great stuff, except that the pay wagon has a Gatling gun on it. It is defended by Pinkerton agents. It is like a rolling iron fortress.

On board, riding shotgun — sawed off, so it would not reliably hit anything farther away than 50 feet — is Peter Fonda. An old Peter Fonda. A Peter Fonda who looks my age. Grim.

In preparation for the robbery, Crowe is sketching a bird. He is an artist, we see, a real Renaissance man. As we learn later, he quotes the Bible, especially Proverbs, based on his having read the entire Bible in three days at age eight. Some memory! He is like Robby Benson in The Chosen, except that he is a gentile and a mass murderer and can act.

The gang attacks the pay wagon. The guys in the wagon shoot a bunch of them. But this, it turns out, is only the first half of the gang. This gang is so large that it would not have remained inconspicuous in the scene of Pickett’s charge in Gettysburg. Pickett might even have won, had this gang been in his division.

Crowe then releases a herd of cattle in front of the wagon, which overturns.

Where did he get the cattle?

We find out only after the gang shoots all the wagon’s defenders, killing all but the most despicable, a bounty hunter: Fonda. These are Bale’s cattle. He and his two sons went looking for them and found the gang instead, just as they gunned down everyone. He asks for them back. Crowe complies.

Does Crowe shoot them as witnesses to murder? Of course not.

So, in one night, this poor guy had his barn burned down by one gang and his cattle stolen by another. But he never mentioned to his wife, “Hey, what happened to all our cattle? I’d better go looking for them.”

Plausible so far?

His 14-year-old son is a potty-mouth, pushy kid who is verbally contemptuous of his father, and refuses to obey him. In other words, he is a thoroughly modern kid in an 1878 setting. The script writers eventually turn the kid into a hero precisely because he will not obey, which his father eventually sees as the basis of his transition to adulthood.

The gang takes the money from the strongbox and rides straight into town, where the sheriff is waiting for the wagon. So far, there is no trace of a railroad line.

The gang’s second-in-command then tricks the sheriff, telling him about the overturned wagon and the bodies. The sheriff rides off with about half a dozen men. The gang then goes to a bar for a few drinks.

The bartender is a woman, and let me tell you, if the wild West had ever had women who looked like she does, it would have been a whole lot wilder.

The gang is legitimately worried about the return of the sheriff. They leave to head south of the border in nearby Mexico. But not Crowe. Oh, no. He takes the bartender upstairs. Afterward, he doesn’t even offer her a cigarette. Instead, he sketches her naked backside.

Crowe then goes downstairs. He meets Bale. They chat. Bale asks for payment for two of his cattle, which had died. Crowe pays him a few dollars. Then the recently and silently returned sheriff and his posse surprise him from behind and arrest him.

Plausible so far?

The visiting railroad official then tries to hire a posse to take Crowe to a distant town where the railroad will then take Crowe to Yuma, where the territorial prison is. No one wants to go. Why, it’s High Noon! Oops; it isn’t. The sheriff will not go, either. It is not clear exactly why — possibly to get off-screen as fast as possible.

The railroad man then promises to pay Bale $200 if he delivers Crowe to the distant depot. Nobody else wants the job except the guy who burned down Bale’s barn. He was one of the hirelings of the guy Bale owes the money to. “It’s my job,” he explained.

Why hire Bale? Because Bale is a crack rifle shot. Everyone says so. He says so. So, he takes his rifle with him.

Only once in the film does he actually shoot anything of significance with his rifle. Like the movie’s writers, desperately aiming at a story line, he fires off a few rounds, but he never hits much.

The railroad man does not telegraph the prison to tell them to have two Gatling guns on the train this time, along with a platoon of troops. No, sir. He just gathers the small group together, and off they ride to the train depot, by way of Bale’s home, where Bale leaves his wife alone in the dining room for several minutes to chat with Crowe, who talks to her about a beautiful woman with green eyes. That’s what he told the bartender, too. It seems that Crowe is obsessed by good-looking women with green eyes. He never finds one. Green eyes are possibly a metaphor — for what, I am not sure.

Bale rides off with the little posse, but not before telling his potty-mouth son to stay behind. This is like telling Crowe to forget about green-eyed women.

In the little group is Fonda, who was shot in the belly by Crowe that afternoon but was allowed to live to settle old scores, although I am not sure exactly how this accomplished the goal. He has just endured an operation by the local veterinarian, who had dug a hole in his stomach the size of one of Dr. House’s operations, to extract the bullet. He then gets on his horse and rides off with the posse — no blood, no pain, no mention of the fact that five or so hours earlier he was lying in the dirt with lead in his belly. This is the best role Fonda has ever had. “Hi. I’m Peter, and I’m a recovering gut-shot victim.” “Hi, Peter!”

He is a Bible-reading mass murderer, a Christian who loves Jesus. The Hollywood script writers know who the real bad guys are, as usual: Jesus-loving murderers of women and small children.

Meanwhile the gang doubles back to find Crowe. They go in search of the little group. The gang can be seen in the distance. Will anyone in the group say, “Who are those guys?” Sadly, no. This time the Hole in the Wall Gang is tracking the law. As in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the trackers have an Indian in the group. It is not clear if he does the tracking.

Then Crowe and Fonda start chatting about what constitutes legitimate murder. It’s all a matter of your perspective, they conclude. This is high-level existentialist stuff, no doubt.

Crowe then jumps Fonda, horse to horse, tosses him over a convenient cliff, which the camera had previously missed, grabs his rifle, and tells the little posse to drop their guns, which they do. But then, out of nowhere — I mean nowhere — the potty-mouth son appears right behind Crowe and gets the drop on him. The tables are turned!

They must outrun Crowe’s gang. Fortunately, Bale knows a shortcut to the depot town. It goes through Apache territory. These are Apaches who never surrendered to the U.S. Army. Crowe warns against this, but Bale insists.

Later, three Apaches shoot at them in the night. Crowe gets a gun from the guy he has just knifed to death (actually, Crowe used a fork, but what is the correct verb?) — the big-mouth who burned down Bale’s barn — and sneaks off to kill all three. Here is the scene: a white, artistic, Bible-quoting, murderous bank robber sneaks up on three Apaches by starting out in plain sight — or sites — from right in front of them, maybe 50 yards away. He is successful. We are not shown exactly how he did this, but three Apaches, who the U.S. Army could not defeat, are sent to the great pow-wow in the sky.

Plausible so far?

Fortunately, no more Apaches show up. Crowe escapes in the night. He steals the posse’s horses. But then he leaves them tied up a few miles down the trail. He is heading for the depot town, where he will meet his gang.

He rides into a railroad construction camp. This isn’t where the depot is. Why the railroad is being built here, close to Apache country, we are not told. The sheriff of the camp spots Crowe, who it seems killed the sheriff’s brother years ago. He arrests him and then tortures him.

At this point, the posse rides in. They see that Crowe is being tortured. They tell the torturers this is immoral, which fails to impress. It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess. Then they spring him. They all make a break for it by going through a nearby tunnel — presumably a new one in front of them, not the one behind them they came through on their way to the depot town.

Bale, the kid, the railroad man, and Crowe wind up at the depot town, but they do not go to the depot. Of course not. They check in for a couple of hours at a hotel. They stay in the only available room, the bridal suite. This is a metaphor for . . . I give up.

Bale allows Crowe to walk around the room at will. Seeing what had happened to Fonda apparently has not registered with him. He sends his son to keep a lookout for the gang, which had avoided the Apache shortcut. Then the railroad man goes off to find the sheriff.

The local sheriff then shows up. He has a few deputies. The son then shows up. He has spotted the gang. This is maybe an hour after the little group arrived in town. Some shortcut!

“How many of them?” asks the sheriff. “Seven or eight,” the kid says. It turns out to be seven.

Bale gets the railroad man to promise to pay the kid $1,000 if the kid goes home immediately. He agrees. Bale then sends the kid home. The kid promises to go home and leaves. Bale is a very, very slow learner.

The gang rides in and announces on Main Street that they will pay anyone $200 for shooting the sheriff or one of his deputies. Money talks! The whole town runs off to get guns.

High Noon was never like this!

The sheriff, his deputies, and the railroad man see that they are outgunned. They surrender. As soon as they lay down their guns, the gang shoots them down, saving the $200-per-victim bounty. The private contractors in town are out of luck. I am not sure if this is a metaphoric statement against Halliburton or not.

Bale now has to get Crowe from the hotel to the train station, as if the train actually means something, as if his gang could not kill any lawmen on the train with no trouble at all and release Crowe. But how can he get Crowe to the station and not get killed?

There is one way, a way that might conceivably work: the George Jackson way. With your right hand, you stick a cocked revolver under Crowe’s chinny-chin-chin. With your left hand, you press forward on the back of Crowe’s head. Then you yell to the gang, “Shoot me, and I will pull the trigger as my final automatic reaction. Your boss will die.” Then you pray like mad that the pathological, fast-draw maniac who is the number-two gang member doesn’t want to become number-one. You march Crowe to the train station.

But no. Bale persuades Crowe to make a run for it to the station, which Crowe does without an argument, even though Bale has shown repeatedly that he will not shoot Crowe, since he has to get him loaded onto the train.

They run for it. For a peg-legged man, Bale can really run. He leaps across rooftops.

The gang starts shooting at Bale. Then Bale starts shooting his pistol — no rifle is anywhere to be seen. Gang members start falling like ten pins. One. Two. Three. More. I lost count. Are these supposed to be townspeople, still hoping for $200? After they have seen the entire police department gunned down? They want to submit a bill to these guys?

It’s 1950, and I’m watching Hopalong Cassidy (1942) on TV, and the six guns roar: one, two . . . eight, nine . . . fifteen, sixteen. . . . OK! I love B-westerns! And this movie is the B-western of all B-westerns, script-wise.

The surviving gang members finally shoot Bale. He falls. So, Crowe gets a gun and shoots the last four members of his gang, including the maniac.

Plausible so far?

The kid reappears, pistol in hand, and threatens to kill Crowe, but doesn’t, kneels down, says goodbye to his father, who is lying on the ground next to the train, which was late (this, I can believe).

Crowe then climbs onto the train. He leaves behind the saddlebags filled with money, apparently for the townspeople to divvy up after all.

Is this evidence of some form of redemption? There has been no verbal communication of any change on Crowe’s part. There was no visible cause. Artistically, this is utterly incoherent if this movie is about a bad man going good.

The train heads off to Yuma. Crowe whistles for his horse. The horse hears, and races off next to the train. The train and the horse disappear, screen-right.

Fade to black.

Credits roll.

As I said earlier, I did not see, This movie is dedicated to the memory of Ed Wood.

Ed was cheated.

So was Elmore Leonard, who wrote the original story. Whatever they paid him for the rights to this ghastly re-make, it wasn’t enough.

This movie may turn out to be a huge commercial success — something done magnificently that should not have been done at all.

Buster Crabbe and Fuzzy St. John, where are you now, when we need you?

September 15, 2007

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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